BY CHRIS MCNULTY
THE beard is thinner now than it was in 2008 when it became a symbol of the summer, but Joe McMahon still retains a warrior-like image.
When Tyrone lost to Down in the Ulster Championship five years ago, Ryan McMenamin suggested at training one night that they should do something for a bit of light relief. So it went that several Tyrone players promised not to shave until they had Sam Maguire in their possession.
After a 1-15 to 0-14 win over Kerry, Sam was theirs and the bearded figures of McMenamin, Martin Penrose, Ciaran Gourley and McMahon all had their turns lifting Sam. McMenamin’s was quite the fuzz, but there was something about the growth of McMahon that stood him apart.
Maybe it was the thick thatch on the cheeks, or perhaps it was that gumshield from which the clenched teeth grinned at opponents.
Through that summer, the big Omagh man resembled a Spartan warrier and his celebratory pose after striking a goal past Stephen Cluxton in the All-Ireland quarter-final is one of the iconic images of the ‘08 season.
A double All-Ireland winner, McMahon could hardly watch the final in 2012. It wasn’t that he bore a grudge against Donegal, but it was that feeling knawing away at him that Tyrone had been the side who had come closest to taking down Tir Chonaill.
“We knew what we could bring up against Donegal,” he says.
“It was hard to watch other teams coming up against Donegal, them knowing how Donegal would play and not being able to counter-act it. A lot of teams played into Donegal’s hands. We have a chance now to go out and do something about all of that.”
Without silverware now since 2010, Tyrone’s thirst for a return to those days when theirs was a feared challenge is growing by the day, the hour even.
The name of Tyrone is still one to strike something in opponents. That it is they who stand as the first hurdle against the reigning All-Ireland champions is a large part of why Sean MacCumhaill Park will be heaving to its 17,520 capacity by the time Joe McQuillan throws in the ball at 4 o’clock.
McMahon makes no apologies for saying it: “Tyrone want it all. We want to win everything. It’s win at all costs.”
That they came up short in their previous two summer struggles with Donegal is not compensated by the fact that they were so close, closer than any other indeed, to getting the edge.
If anything it only adds to that ‘what if’ that has been spinning in their minds since.
McMahon says Tyrone have improvements to find.
“Taking our scores at the right times and you’d want to be finishing a bit stronger too,” he mentions.
“In 2011, Donegal got a late goal and it was hard for us to get back from that. Last year, you had Paul Durcan making a great save from Marty Penrose near the end. It is these margins that will all count to the final result.
“In saying that, you make your own luck. On the day it’ll come down to both who wants it more and who makes the least mistakes.
“They have won twice against us in the last two years. The first time, we were going for three-in-a-row (in 2011) and the second time they beat us they went onto win the All-Ireland and they’re now going for three Ulsters in a row themselves. We have the opportunity to stop them from getting that.
“There will be areas that we’ll have to adjust and areas that we’ll need to work on from the League. We’re finely tuning things that we need to do and there are different players who came in during the League who did a good job.”
He’s 29 now, turns 30 in August, but McMahon still has plenty left in a tank. He is one of Mickey Harte’s most loyal and trusted foot soldiers. His versatility knows no bounds. This is a player who can play almost anywhere, without fuss or fanfare.
The spring served Tyrone well. They reached a League final and Harte has managed to uneath some new talent, like the goalkeeper Niall Morgan whose ability with the placed balls has been a real coup into a side who had to use seven place kickers in last year’s Ulster semi final, none of whom had any great success.
“They’ve come in and done well, but the Championship is a new level altogether – they’ll be well tested,” McMahon says.
“I’ve been lucky enough to win medals in my career, but as a player you want to win as much as you can. Hopefully that will continue for Tyrone. The young lads have had experience of winning at underage level; hopefully they can take that into senior level.
“Teams have built themselves up over the last few months and are now looking at the Championship as the be all and end all. Donegal will be a difficult game and that’s all our focus is on.”
In 2005 and 2008, Tyrone topped the tree and McMahon would dearly love to swing from those branches again. Donegal are in unchartered waters this year. It is they who are now up there as Champions to be shot at.
Twice McMahon has experienced that feeling of heading out on the defence of titles.
“It’s difficult, obviously, because you’re coming off a lot of distractions,” he says.
“Again, you get yourself focussed for the following year. The League campaign that Donegal had probably didn’t serve them too well, but they have said all along that they’ve been focussing on the Championship – and Championship is their aim.
“I wouldn’t be ruling them out of Ulster or the All-Ireland just yet.”
Tyrone’s fine League campaign came as a bit of a jolt, marching to the League final in their first term back in the top flight after spending some time in Division 2.
Ahead of schedule, it could be said.
“Well, we don’t really have a schedule as such,” McMahon resonds, “but, in saying that, we knew that the games would be tough in Division 1 and that we’d have to be at the top of our game.
“A tough, hard working pre-season served us well and the fitness was there. We were happy to reach the final, but not so happy to be beaten.
“We need to step it up to another level now for the Championship.”
McMahon describes their games against Donegal have been ‘very intense’ and admires the transformation of this team under Jim McGuinness, but his poker face is on when he says, very succinctly: “It’s a difficult one to come up against, but it’s something we’ll be prepared for.”
The triumphant team on Sunday will see their odds slashed considerably for winning the Anglo-Celt, but the loser will be off to those games of lottery, like the bearded trenchmen of Tyrone embarked upon in ‘08 when they got over Louth, Westmeath and Mayo to steer themselves back to the big stuff.
Tyrone have won two of their three All-Irelands through the qualifiers. Still, they crave provincial silverware in the O’Neill county.
McMahon says: “We have been through the front door and we’ve been through the back door. Going through the back door hasn’t done us too much harm, in fairness.
“It has served us well, but you still want to go the traditional route and getting a chance to win Ulster is another incentive.”
These sides have had a habit of upsetting the other after they’d reached the top. Donegal won their first Ulster title in ‘72, but were beaten by Tyrone in ‘73; Colm McFadden scored 1-7 in 2004 to chop the reigning Ulster and All-Ireland kings, Tyrone down to size; and it was Donegal who, in 2011, ended Tyrone’s bid for a third successive Anglo-Celt.
Now the shoe is on the other foot and as Donegal start the bid for a three-in-a-row of their own, it is Tyrone whom they meet first.
“We have the chance now to stop that,” McMahon says.
“We’ll be doing all we can, but we won’t be thinking about that on the day. It’ll just be a battle and there won’t be much in it. We’re looking forward to it.”